Two black men walk into a coffee shop, ask to use the restroom, and are denied. They sit down at a table, and within two minutes, the store manager calls the police. The officers immediately arrest the men and lead them out of the store in handcuffs. It might sound like a scene from a civil-rights sit-in at a lunch counter the South in 1960, but if you’ve been following the news, you know it took place at a Philadelphia Starbucks in April 2018. The men, who had a business meeting at the coffeehouse, hadn’t planned to start a protest against racism that day, but their arrests prompted a mini-wave of civil-rights demonstrations.
“We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
Today, we live in a time of seemingly relentless activism, as citizens take to the streets to fight everything from sexism and racism to the plague of gun violence. But 50 years ago, America experienced a similar period of turmoil and upheaval. If we took a time machine back to 1968, we’d find the country in much the same place as today: The disaffected were growing louder and more volatile as a reaction to systemic racism, capitalism, inequality, and war—especially in the wake of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy. Mostly white conservatives pushed back against the left-wing protestors by demanding “law and order” and putting President Richard Nixon into office in 1969. His election occurred around the same time women and members of the LGBTQ community hit their breaking points suffering under systemic oppression, and began to demand equal rights as well.
However, the widespread protests of 2018 and 1968 don’t stand alone in American history: The founding of the United States itself was an act of protest, and within its first 50 years, the country reached another feverish state of demonstrations and demands for reform around slavery, institutional sexism, capitalism, and child welfare. It shouldn’t be all that surprising, as petitioning for change is a part of this country’s very DNA, written into the Constitution in the First Amendment. As the third U.S. President Thomas Jefferson said, “I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and Constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
If you take a close look at the events of Thomas Jefferson’s life, including raping one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, even the esteemed Founding Father will look like a barbarian in the eyes of modern Americans. Fortunately, as he suggested, America has shed his own constricting idea of “freedom,” although other racist, sexist, and classist policies remain intact today. The point of protest is not to divide, but to wrestle our way out of these binds. Here, then, is a broad—but by no means complete—primer on U.S. political protest movements and their cultural antecedents of the past 200 or so years:
The Enlightenment and Spiritual Awakenings
The U.S. Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, which went into effect on March 4, 1789, based on Enlightenment ideals about equality and democracy, as well as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—although they effectively only applied these ideals to white male property owners like themselves. Perhaps because of this hypocrisy, panic about the soul of this new country was already brewing in the 1790s. Through traveling tent revivals, the Second Great Awakening gained steam at the turn of the 19th century. Led by Baptist and Methodist ministers, the movement asserted that Jesus Christ would be returning to Earth for a 1,000-year reign. And before Christ arrived, Americans needed to clean up their act.
Besides those swept up in Evangelical Christianity, another group of spiritual seekers was redefining American morals. By the 1820s, East Coast artists, writers, and intellectuals sought meaning through a philosophy that combined parts of Christianity with Romanticism, individualism, and Eastern religions and became known as Transcendentalism, promoted by thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Margaret Fuller.
As these two spiritual movements encouraged self-reflection, they prompted Americans to consider the ills of society. Thus, in the 1840s and 1850s, the Progressive Era began as the influence of social-reform movements swelled; these included education reform, child-labor reform, temperance, women’s suffrage, labor, and the abolition of slavery.
The First Women’s Movement—Women’s Suffrage
The American women’s rights movement officially launched at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. There, the first-wave feminists introduced their Declaration of Sentiments demanding equality for women—or for white women, at least. Stanton, Mott, Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony led the charge for women’s right to vote, also known as women’s suffrage.
In 1851, an escaped slave named Sojourner Truth spoke for women’s rights in her speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention—a speech that later became known as “Ain’t I a Woman?”, even though it’s likely Truth never uttered that phrase. Thanks to black activists like Truth and Harriet Tubman, many so-called suffragists, including Anthony and Stanton, were persuaded to join the movement to abolish slavery, but suffrage for white women remained their focus. It would be a battle the suffragists would fight for more than 72 years.
Laws often blocked married women from having jobs like single women and widows, who could be hired as teachers and other low-paying occupations. In 1855, Mary Gove Nichols called marriage the “annihilation of women,” since wives were then legally considered men’s property. Nichols campaigned for “free love,” which meant the government could not regulate romantic or sexual relationships, and encouraged non-procreative sex and access to birth control.
In the decade after the Civil War, free-love advocate Victoria Woodhull ran for U.S. president in 1872, representing the Equal Rights Party, which enlisted former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass as her running mate. The election pitted Woodhull and Douglass against second-term president, Union general, and Radical Reconstruction leader Ulysses S. Grant. The Equal Rights Party never stood a chance, in part because progressive voters were reluctant to cast a vote that could undermine Reconstruction in the South, where Grant’s military occupation protected the voting rights of African Americans and introduced the first black politicians to local governments. (In 1877, newly elected president Rutherford B. Hayes put an end to Reconstruction, effectively killing black political power in the South.)
In the United Kingdom, British women, who’d been talking about suffrage since the 1790s, were inspired by their American counterparts to demand their rights more aggressively in the mid-19th century. In 1897, the country’s two main women’s suffrage groups merged into the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett. In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst, with her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, broke away from the NUWSS to create the Women’s Social and Political Union, better known as the Suffragettes, a radical group that would carry out violent protest, like letter bombs. In 1918, some, but not all, British women were granted the right to vote.
The U.S. Senate rejected the first proposed women’s suffrage amendment to the Constitution in 1887. Three years later, Susan B. Anthony organized the National American Woman Suffrage Association, which first focused on state-level women’s suffrage. Inspired by the radical Suffragettes in the United Kingdom, NAWSA members Alice Paul and Lucy Burns began to agitate for the federal amendment again, organizing the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Procession. That year, on March 3, more than 5,000 women marched on Washington, D.C., to demand voting rights, with costumes and signs, some on foot, some on horseback, some in wagons; the African-American contingent, with Ida B. Wells, was forced to march in back. The event drew a large, mostly male crowd, which jeered, spat on, and even physically assaulted the marchers, sometimes with the help of the police. Women finally gained the right to vote in the United States in 1920.
The American and British suffragists produced their fair share of political propaganda, including pamphlets, posters, postcards, and pins. The Suffragettes, whose slogan was “Votes for Women,” wore jewelry in their official colors—green, white, and violet. Historians say it’s a myth that these colors were a secret code that stood for “Give Women the Vote.” Not surprisingly, anti-suffragists and anti-Suffragettes clapped back with cruel, vulgar depictions of feminists on comic postcards as ugly, promiscuous, or irresponsible women and their husbands as emasculated and overwhelmed by domestic chores.
The Abolition of Slavery
Initially, at least, suffragists argued that (white) women should have the right to vote because women were inherently more moral and religious than their husbands, who were thought to be corrupted by their political and career ambitions—and their nights boozing and gambling at saloons. This assertion was in line with the 19th-century social system of Separate Spheres, which assigned women to domestic life and men to the public sphere. Thus the impetus to purge America of its sins empowered women to speak up, and in the early 1800s, particularly pious Northerners were starting to see chattel slavery as one of America’s most shameful sins.
Around the same time that the women’s movement was gearing up in the United States, the abolitionists—part of an anti-slavery movement that had been brewing since the 1770s—organized to fight the spread of slavery into the new U.S. territories in 1848. A journalist named William Lloyd Garrison, as well as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, who both escaped slavery, were among the abolitionists demanding enslavers free the people they had enslaved immediately.
Douglass, in particular, employed the new medium of photography to create self-portraits intended to humanize enslaved blacks in the eyes of white Americans. Garrison produced abolitionist newspapers while Douglass published a powerful biography, My Bondage and My Freedom, in 1855. After slaves were freed from bondage, Tubman, who had guided dozens of enslaved people to freedom and served as a Union spy during the Civil War, also joined the suffrage movement.
In the middle of the Civil War, which was started by the Confederacy in 1861 to protect the institution of slavery, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, which made all enslaved people in the South free according to the United States government. But all African Americans were not officially freed from slavery until the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in December 1865. The Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 provided citizenship and equal rights to former slaves. The Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 granted voting rights to all American men, regardless of race.
However, most freed slaves were not given any land or payment for their years of unpaid labor. They often ended up working as indentured servants in the sharecropping system, or were arrested, thanks to Jim Crow-era Black Codes that more or less made being black in public illegal. A clause in the Thirteen Amendment allowed that convicts could be forced into slave labor, so many African Americans in the South were re-enslaved in prison camps. Others were subjected to segregation, blocked from voting, and tormented by night-riding terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. African Americans lost their political power in the South when Reconstruction ended and the U.S. military pulled out in 1877. Those who could migrated to the North to look for new opportunities, where they faced housing and job discrimination and social ridicule through blackface entertainment and racist advertising characters. The 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson established the “separate but equal” doctrine that legalized racial segregation.
At the turn of the 20th century, white people were lynching and massacring African Americans in alarming numbers all over the country. In 1905, the Niagara Movement brought 32 African American leaders together to discuss segregation, discrimination, disenfranchisement, and racist violence. That meeting led several prominent black activists including W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, and Mary Church Terrell to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.
The NAACP would face an uphill battle in the coming decades. In the 1910s and 1920s, thanks, in part, to the 1915 movie “The Birth of a Nation,” white nationalism surged, and the Ku Klux Klan—previously a clandestine vigilante group—re-emerged as a mainstream (but still violently racist) fraternal order that advocated for white Christian purity and alcohol prohibition, while expanding its targets to include Catholic and Jewish people.
Temperance and Prohibition of Alcohol
In Colonial America, home-brewed beer was the drink of choice, and men in particular drank it all day, even though being obviously drunk in public was considered shameful. To promote restraint in alcohol consumption, the American Temperance Society was established in 1826. The Prohibition Party, founded in 1869, had a more extreme agenda, which was to ban liquor production and sales.
During the Progressive Era, women who employed their moral authority to fight for women’s suffrage and abolition also decided to fight an “evil” in their own homes—contending with drunk, abusive husbands they were not allowed to divorce. These women felt their families suffered from the coffer-draining and corrupting influence of men-only saloons, where political, economic, and criminal deals were made.
The influential Woman’s Christian Temperance Union formed in 1873 in Hillsboro, Ohio. Led by feminists Annie Wittenmyer and Frances Willard, the WCTU also rallied against tobacco and prostitution and in favor of a higher age of sexual consent for girls, improved working conditions, public sanitation, and peace. Carrie Nation—also known as Carry Nation—whose first husband died of alcoholism, formed a branch of the WCTU in Medicine Lodge, Kansas, in the late 19th century. By 1900, she had decided her mission from God was to destroy saloons across Kansas, and she carried on this mission for a decade, swinging a hatchet and sometimes bringing hymn-singing female protestors with her. She was arrested 32 times.
The Anti-Saloon League, founded in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1893, had major backing from Protestant ministers across the United States, and it created a powerful lobby that helped the Prohibition of Alcohol pass as the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920. The law was repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933.
The First Labor Movement
The labor movement had been brewing since the Colonial era, and the first recorded strike—by skilled tailors protesting reduced wages—happened in 1768. At the time, most Americans did some farming to support their families, developing their craftsmanship in the winter months. Work hours were not much of an issue: Self-employed farmers put in the most hard labor for about six months of the year, estimated at 8-10 hours a day. In the early days of the United States, craftsmen began organizing trade unions in cities around the country to protect their fields from cheap and shoddy workmanship.
But as the Industrial Revolution progressed in the new country, it revealed cracks in the Enlightenment ideals about equality the United States was founded on. Mechanized production created three distinct classes, the upper class or the company owners, the middle class or the business professionals, and the working class who labored in the factories. The growing wealth gap between the upper and lower classes was at odds with American ideals. Some historians believe factory workers—men, women, and children—would work from sun up to sun down, with only Sunday off. It’s estimated American workers devoted 60 to 70 hours a week to their jobs during the 19th century.
The Working Men’s Party was established in 1828 in Philadelphia and in 1829 in New York City. The so-called “Workies” advocated for men of low economic status, demanding that all (white) men receive the right to vote while also fighting for shorter working hours, educational opportunities, and safeguards from debtor’s prison.
After the Civil War, industrialization took off in earnest as coal, steel, and railroad equipment were in demand to develop the American West. Industry magnates employed bevies of European immigrants in low-wage jobs in their plants. The overworked and underpaid coal miners, steel workers, and train-car builders, among others, began organizing and striking against their wealthy bosses for better pay and improved working conditions. These strikes often led to violent clashes with company guards, police officers, and even the U.S. Army, where striking workers would sometimes be shot and killed. The union members sometimes retaliated with guns and pipe bombs of their own.
In 1866, the National Labor Union attempted to form a coalition of trade unions to push for eight-hour work days. But it wasn’t as successful as the Knights of Labor, which was founded in 1869 and flourished in the 1880s, in response to the rapid post-Civil War industrialization of the 1870s. Led by Uriah Stephens, Terence Powderly, and Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, the Knights included workers of all skills level and sexes. The Knights pushed for eight-hour work days, an end to child labor, and a graduated income tax.
The Workingmen’s Party of the United States, inspired by German philosopher Karl Marx and the left-wing International Workingmen’s Association that started in Europe, formed in 1876 in Philadelphia. A congress of socialists led by Albert Parsons, the party rallied for a series of railroad strikes in 1877. A year later, the organization re-formed as the Socialist Labor Party, which evolved into the Socialist Party of America, which was headed by union leader Eugene V. Debs, who eventually ran for president five times between 1900 and 1920.
In 1881, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions—which became the American Federation of Labor in 1886—formed to promote trade unionism for skilled workers. The FOTLU set May 1, 1886, as the date that eight-hour workdays should be standard and promoted a general strike on that day. Roughly 80,000 people in Chicago joined in the “May Day” protests, including 30,000 to 40,000 striking laborers. Two days into the strike, police fired into a crowd, and on May 4, a rally at Haymarket Square turned violent, a conflict that killed seven police officers and four protestors. Parsons was one of four socialist leaders convicted and hanged in the wake of the police deaths at the so-called “Haymarket Affair.”
While the AFL stated it represented all workers of all skills, gender, race, and religion, its national trade unions only represented skilled laborers, which, because of social and economic discrimination, were usually white men. To expand worker representation to rural America, the People’s Party, known as the Populist Party, formed in St. Louis in 1892 to represent farmers and other “common folk” against railroad tycoons, bankers, corporations and their crony politicians.
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), known as the “Wobblies,” was a more radical answer to the AFL, organized in Chicago in 1905 by anarchists, Marxists, and socialists including Debs and Mother Jones. The Wobblies wanted all workers to overthrow the employing class and establish a system that favored cooperation and human rights over competition and profit. They welcomed women, immigrants, and African and Asian Americans into their ranks. Businessmen hired employees to disrupt Wobbly meetings, either with something benign like bringing in the Salvation Army marching band, or by inciting violence. Wobblies who dared to make public speeches risked being arrested and killed.
In 1906, muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair published his novel, The Jungle, which was meant to expose the horrific working conditions of immigrants employed by urban meatpacking plants. Instead, the public got worked up about lack of sanitation and purity in their processed food, and demanded new health codes and food-safety inspections.
Flappers, Sexual Liberation, and Birth Control
In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment granted women the right to vote and the Eighteenth Amendment prohibited the production, importation, transportation, and sale of intoxicating beverages. While men-only saloons closed, barely concealed speakeasies flourished, and young urban women, known as “flappers,” experienced more freedoms than they ever had before—they could vote, they could work, they could wear less restricting and more revealing clothing, and they could drive cars and go dancing at these secret bars. In the same decade, the first American LGBT rights organization, the Society for Human Rights, was founded by Henry Gerber in Chicago in 1924.
Despite all these new freedoms, women still had—and have—a long way to go. Alice Paul, now the head of the militant National Woman’s Party, campaigned for an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would guarantee women equality when it comes to employment, property, and divorce. The bill was first introduced to Congress in 1921. A version of the bill did not pass Congress until 1972, and as of today, it’s only been ratified by one state, Nevada.
In the 1910s and 1920s, a young socialist woman named Margaret Sanger campaigned for birth control, founding the American Birth Control League, which later became Planned Parenthood. Sanger is a controversial figure today because she aligned herself with eugenicists who believed that birth control could be employed to make a “more perfect” human race—and that ideal was most often white, straight, able-bodied, and within the socially defined boundaries of mentally stable and sane.
Labor, the Dust Bowl, and the New Deal
The Great Depression caused by the stock market crash of 1929 devastated the United States, as businesses closed and millions of citizens became unemployed and so impoverished they couldn’t afford food, clean water, clothing, or shelter. The American economic downturn also damaged economies around the globe, and a series of Hunger Marches took place in United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States.
The severe droughts and wind erosion of the earth caused a series of dust storms known as the Dust Bowl that further wrecked the lives of American farmers and their crops in parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico between 1930 and 1939. Tens of thousands of farm laborers fled to other states. Oklahoma-born folk singer Woody Guthrie became the voice of these itinerant workers with ballads like “This Land Is Your Land,” while government-backed photographers like Dorothea Lange documented their plight. John Steinbeck fictionalized the Dust Bowl with his 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath.
U.S. presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt responded to the economic crisis by developing a series of federal programs, reforms, and public works projects; FDR’s programs were known as the New Deal. Roosevelt pushed for the repeal of Prohibition when he came into office in 1933, as it had not prevented alcoholism or public drunkenness; instead, it had created a black market for mafia racketeering and crime. Plus, allowing the sale and manufacture of alcohol would boost the U.S. economy.
The New Deal established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Public Works Administration to employ Americans to improve infrastructure, the Rural Electrification Administration to build power lines across the nation, the Food Stamp Plan, the Social Security Act, and the Works Progress Administration.
However, many of these programs were specifically designed to benefit white Americans while holding back minority groups. For example, Federal Housing Administration, established in 1934, created a system called “redlining.” City maps were color-coded based on the race and ethnicity of the residents of each neighborhood. Red lines were drawn around pre-dominantly African American or minority neighborhoods. White families living in neighborhoods outside the red lines found it easy to secure home loans, while families of color living within the red lines were rejected. This policy kept generational wealth in the hands of white Americans, while other ethnic groups continued to struggle.
The Wagner Act, or the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, promised workers the right to collective bargaining through their unions. In the late 1930s, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) brought together unions for coal mines, auto manufacturing, and rubber and steel processing. The eight-hour workday and 40-hour workweek, which had become the standard in many industries thanks to nearly a century of union organizing, became federal law in 1938, thanks to the Fair Labor Standards Act. The law also established the national minimum wage and overtime pay, and it prohibited child labor.
On the West Coast in the early 1950s, César Chávez began organizing for the rights of Latinos, Mexican Americans, and farm laborers. In 1962, he and Dolores Huerta formed the National Farm Workers Association, which was later known as United Farm Workers.
From WWII to Civil Rights
As Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Germany became seen as “the enemy” in the late 1930s, white Americans started to distance themselves from the openly anti-Semitic KKK and eugenics. When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, it was a tremendous boon for the U.S. economy, leading to full employment and reviving manufacturing and innovation.
Before America engaged in combat, in June 1941, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, which banned discrimination in the defense industry. But African Americans were still saddled with the lowest-status, lowest-paying, and most risky jobs, while white women were encouraged to take up “men’s work” in wartime factories.
Black men’s service in the war led to President Harry Truman desegregating the U.S. military in 1948. Because the war was not fought on American soil, the United States thrived in the postwar years as consumerism exploded and the G.I. Bill helped even more white families buy brand new homes in the suburbs. Women were strongly encouraged to return to “traditional” housewife roles.
African Americans in the South, particularly those whom served in World War II, began to protest segregation, prejudice, and a system of government that treated them like second-class citizens. The civil rights movement got its first victory in 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the NAACP’s assertion that segregation was unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education.
In 1955, a 14-year-old boy named Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi for allegedly “insulting” a white woman, and his gruesome, mutilated figure photographed at his open-casket funeral prompted a wave of civil-rights actions across the United States. Activists like Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks sat in bus seats reserved for white people and got arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, prompting the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956, led by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who became the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In Arkansas, nine African American students, who became known as the Little Rock Nine, sued for the right to attend Little Rock Central High School and were blocked by the National Guard on their first day in 1957. To enter the school, the kids had to be escorted by U.S. military jeeps while white people jeered, spat at, and threatened them. In the summer of 1958, Little Rock closed its public school system rather than integrate.
The NAACP and college students planned a series of sit-ins at whites-only lunch counters starting in 1960, where they would usually be brutally removed by local police. These nonviolent demonstrations drew media attention and expanded to parks, beaches, libraries, theaters, department stores, and museums. SCLC leader Ella Baker held a conference in 1960 that prompted the formations of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which decided to use these tactics to challenge segregation on interstate buses. These actions, organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), became known as the 1961 Freedom Rides, and many Freedom Riders were attacked by mobs or arrested and brutalized. John Lewis and Stokely Carmichael were among the SNCC leaders during this period. SCLC, SNCC, and CORE all organized voter-registration campaigns around the South to combat Jim Crow laws that prevented black people from voting.
On August 28, 1963, several major civil-rights organizations came together for the March on Washington, which brought 200,000 to 300,000 demonstrators to Washington, D.C., to demand civil-rights laws, a federal works program, fair employment and housing, the right to vote, and integrated and equal education. There, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech.” A few weeks later, the KKK—re-organized as a response to the civil-rights movement—bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which had been a hub of civil-right organizing, and killed four little girls.
Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X joined the civil rights movement in 1964, asserting that African Americans had the right to defend themselves from violence and promoting black nationalism, which aims to maintain a distinct black identity. That summer, almost 1,000 activists, largely white college students, came to Mississippi in for the Freedom Summer of 1964 to help black activists register voters and teach in “Freedom Schools.” These activists were intimidated, harassed, beaten, and occasionally murdered. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin” when it came to hiring and public services.
Meanwhile, SNCC was attempting to register votes in Selma, Alabama. Faced with obstacles, the organizers planned a march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital. On March 7, 1964, the marchers, including John Lewis, were stopped and beaten by state troopers and local law enforcement. Nationally televised broadcasts of the violence sparked outrage. Activists kept trying to complete the march and finally reached the capitol on March 25; however, several marchers didn’t make it, as they had been badly beaten or killed. Press coverage showing the state’s brutality toward the marchers garnered nationwide sympathy for the cause, and President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, which banned all Jim Crow voter discrimination measures.
Subversive Art, Nuclear Fears, and the Return of Socialism
In the ’50s, young white people were starting to feel disillusioned with postwar consumerism, the new American Dream promised in the suburbs, and the gender roles and social strictures of the nuclear family that limited creativity and personal expression. Family problems like alcoholism and abuse were masked by a veneer of “Leave It to Beaver” propriety. The Beat Generation of writers, artists, and folk and jazz musicians began to rebel against these stuffy ideals. Writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Diane di Prima detailed how discontents were traveling the country, experimenting with drugs and sexuality, and, in a throwback to the Transcendentalism of the 1820s, embracing Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism.
On the political side, a revival of old-guard socialist and anarchist ideas—abandoned during the anti-Communist “Red Scare” of the late ’40s and early ’50s—was re-emerging as the New Left. As early as the mid-1950s, Americans aware of the horrors nuclear bombs unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end of World War II began to advocate for nuclear disarmament and peace. A student activist group called Students for Democratic Society launched in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1960, issued the Port Huron Statement in 1962, encouraging nonviolent civil disobedience they called “participatory democracy” to stand up to racism and the nuclear arms race.
The Anti-Vietnam War Movement and the Rise of the ’60s Counterculture
When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963, a new counterculture movement began in earnest. In 1964, young people in cities and at colleges, who were most at risk for being drafted, began to object to the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. At the University of California at Berkeley, the Free Speech Movement—influenced by the civil rights and anti-war movements and the rise of the New Left—began to protest the ban of political activities at college campuses.
In the mid-’60s, a Bay Area outdoor theater group known as the San Francisco Mime Troupe shifted from commedia dell’arte to political plays addressing how white people were failing the civil rights movement. Then, Mime Troupe member Peter Coyote, along with Emmett Grogan, Peter Berg, Judy Goldhaft, and others, formed an anarchist group called the Diggers. This group launched stunts and demonstrations against capitalism and consumerism, while providing free food, free medical care, and even a Free Store. A similar group, the Youth International Party, or Yippies, protested capitalism and authoritarianism in New York City in the late 1960s. Led by anti-racism and anti-war activist Abbie Hoffman, the Yippies staged flamboyant political pranks like throwing fake dollars into the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in 1967.
The state of the environment was becoming an important flashpoint for the counterculture, as books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring were revealing the impact of toxic chemicals on our air and water, as well as the ecological threats of consumerism and overpopulation. Many hippies believed the best solution was to abandon modern American society, go “back to the land,” and establish a more natural, ecological way of living. Stewart Brand published his Whole Earth Catalog promoting ecological products between 1968 and 1972. The first Earth Day celebration took place in 1970.
Young counterculture members also largely rejected traditional Christianity in favor of trying to expand their minds with psychedelic drugs and physical pleasures. For example, in 1964, counterculture author Ken Kesey and his friends known as the Merry Pranksters started driving his bus around the United States to host parties and experiment with LSD, which was still legal at the time. Hippies embraced Buddhism, Sufism, Hinduism, Wiccan, Pagan, and Native American beliefs, among others, and created a hodgepodge of those religions and philosophies that became known as New Age spirituality.
The Human Be-In, held in San Francisco, on January 14, 1967, was a celebration of the culmination of the countercultural way of life, which included spirituality, drugs, art, music, communal and ecological living, questioning authority, individual expression, sexual freedom, and radical left-wing politics including anti-war protests, civil rights, and women’s rights. This event prompted as many as 100,000 young people from across the United States to descend on San Francisco for the Summer of Love in 1967. Other major hippie gatherings included the Monterey Pop Festival in California in 1967 and the Woodstock Music & Art Fair in 1969.
The anti-war movement grew even stronger in 1967, and in 1968, Abbie Hoffman, black activist Bobby Seale, and six others—known as the Chicago Eight (and later as the Chicago Seven, after Seale was severed from the case)—were charged with conspiracy and inciting to riot at an anti-Vietnam War protest that took place outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The movement reached its peak during the draft lottery of 1969, which took place after anti-counterculture conservative Richard Nixon became U.S. president in January.
By 1970, only one third of Americans thought the U.S. military’s campaign against the Viet Cong was justified. In May of that year, a student anti-war protest at Kent State University turned deadly when Ohio National Guardsmen shot into the crowd and killed four students. In 1973, the United States signed a peace agreement ending its involvement in the Vietnam War, but when the Viet Cong violated the ceasefire, the war resumed. On April 30, 1975, Saigon fell to Communist forces, and the last American troops were airlifted out of the city.
After the Altamont Speedway Free Festival descended into violence in December 1969, it painted a grim future for 1960s hippie idealism and unadulterated freedom, even as hippie-influenced environmental, spiritual, artistic, and sexual ideals and psychedelic fashions proliferated in the 1970s. Countercultural thinking about local, organic, and vegetarian food, education, parent-child relationships, and fitness methods like yoga and Pilates turned into mainstream trends.
Also, a new, more militant left-wing group, the Weather Underground Organization, emerged out of the Students for Democratic Society branch at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In 1969, they rioted to protest the trial of the Chicago Seven, and in the 1970s, having stated in 1974 that their goal was to overthrow U.S. imperialism, they bombed a series of government buildings and banks. Because the Weathermen sent out evacuation warnings in advance, nobody who worked in the bombed buildings was harmed.
Black activists trade nonviolence for Black Power
The assassination of black nationalist and activist Malcolm X on February 21, 1965, led some African American organizers to conclude they had to take a more aggressive stance against white supremacy. At a rally on June 16, 1966, SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael led a group of protestors in a “Black Power” chant, launching a movement that would respond to racist state violence with more violent, militant tactics.
Besides UC Berkeley, San Francisco State University was also a hotbed of radicalism. Students who felt that the school was not adequately addressing their concerns about civil rights and social justice started the Experimental College in the mid-1960s. In 1968 and 1969, the Third World Liberation Front, a coalition of black, Latino, and Asian rights groups, led a series of strikes that forced the university to establish the first College of Ethnic Studies in the United States.
From 1963 to 1967, African American frustration about police violence, institutional unemployment, and housing discrimination boiled over. During the Long, Hot Summer of 1967, while would-be hippies were frolicking in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, race riots were a regular occurrence in cities around the country. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968, prompted even more riots.
Across the Bay from San Francisco in Oakland, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense to establish an armed patrol to protect citizens from the police in October 1966; Eldridge Cleaver joined the party a few months later. In its newspaper, the Black Panthers published its civil-rights goals, the “Ten-Point Platform,” demanding freedom, employment, housing, education, the end of police murdering black people, the release of all black prisoners, and a fair court system. It also took a stance against capitalism and the Vietnam War.
The Black Panthers went on to regularly publish and distribute its radical newspaper, featuring illustrations by the great Emory Douglas, and establish 60-plus “survival programs” including free groceries, free breakfast for children, transportation for disabled people, free health care, and drug counseling. Uncredited women often ran these programs behind the scenes, but as the gun-toting male leaders repeatedly got arrested—in 1967, Newton was charged with shooting and killing a police officer—more and more women were called on to take leadership roles, including Kathleen Cleaver, Elaine Brown, Ericka Huggins, and Angela Davis.
Red Power, Asian American Rights, El Movimiento, and Disability Rights
Inspired by the African American struggle for civil rights, Native Americans in the Red Power movement began to agitate for their rights to establish their own policies and programs, and assert control over their land and resources. On November 20, 1969, 89 Native Americans, members of a group called Indians of All the Tribes, boarded boats to occupy Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. Only 14 people made it past the Coast Guard to the island. Eventually, 400 Native Americans occupied the island, as hippies and celebrities visited the island to show their support. But the occupation dwindled due to internal conflicts and more aggressive tactics by the U.S. government, including cutting off the island’s access to electricity and fresh water. On June 11, 1971, the last 15 occupiers were removed. This protest resulted in the United State government changing its policies toward Native Americans and spurred more Indian-rights activism.
In the late 1960s, Asian Americans—who’d suffered thanks to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Japanese internment during World War II, and the Vietnam War—were finally emboldened to organize for their civil rights. Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee founded the Asian American Political Alliance at UC Berkeley to combat social, economic, and political racism. In Detroit, Grace Lee Boggs, who had experience campaigning for labor and black rights with her African American radical husband James Boggs, promoted the Asian American movement in the Midwest.
Mexican Americans had been organizing for labor and their own civil rights since 1903. In 1943, the Zoot Suit Riots occurred in Los Angeles when American servicemen targeted fashionable Mexican American teens in “zoot suits” for beatings. Inspired by César Chávez’s labor organizing and the tactics of the Black Power movement, the Chicano Movement of the late 1960s petitioned for farm worker’s rights, as well as Latino land, voting, and political rights, and stood up to police brutality and Mexican stereotypes.
The disability rights movement also gained steam in the early 1960s, thanks, in part, to UC Berkeley student activist Ed Roberts, who rejected the stigmatizing “medical view of disability.” Roberts created the independent living movement, which asserted that people with disabilities should have the same opportunities and rights as able-bodied persons, including access to education and work, and the ability to raise their own families. The work of Roberts and other activists eventually led to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
LGBT Rights, Sexual Liberation, and Second-Wave Feminism
In 1950, communist and labor organizer Harry Hay formed The Mattachine Society in Los Angeles to protect gay men and help them connect and fight for their civil rights. Other branches opened in cities around the United States during the decade, as the society produced a magazine called “The Mattachine Review.”
After the birth control pill was approved by the FDA in 1960, young straight Americans felt liberated to explore pre- and extramarital sex during the so-called “sexual revolution.” While the mainstream had the pick-up bar scene, in the counterculture, the new free-love movement (which was very different from Mary Gove Nichols’ 1855 movement of the same name) embraced previously taboo behavior including public nudity, promiscuity, and sexual experimentation including homosexual activity, and communal or polyamorous relationships such as open marriages.
With John F. Kennedy’s creation of the Commission on the Status of Women in 1961 and the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963, the second wave of feminism got rolling as white women declared they were not happy being relegated to submissive housewife roles that rendered them financially and politically powerless. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 was one early victory of the new women’s liberation movement. In 1966, Friedan formed the National Organization for Women.
In an era of new sexual mores, the conservative backlash came hardest against the LGBT community. Because San Francisco was the launching point for military men, the police were cracking down on gay bars and arresting transwomen for “suspicion of prostitution,” supposedly to keep the young servicemen “uncorrupted.” In 1966, a group of young LGBTQ people responded by founding an organization called Vanguard to stage protests and publish a magazine.
In August 1966, queer, transgender, and gender-nonconforming residents of the Tenderloin neighborhood got fed up with discrimination from businesses and police. When the owners of Gene Compton’s Cafeteria called the cops to remove a table of boisterous queer folks, the patrons refused to leave and started a riot. Three years later, on June 28, 1969, patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York City—who included drag queens, transgender people, effeminate gay men, butch lesbians, and male sex workers—rebelled against a police raid targeting the bar, inciting a riot. The conflict between the police and the LGBT community continued for several nights, and these Stonewall Riots launched the gay liberation and gay pride movements. Gay activist Gilbert Baker created the iconic rainbow flag for San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day parade in 1978.
In the late ’60s, many women in the counterculture, black power movement, and the New Left were not just fed up with the mainstream patriarchy and institutional sexism, they were sick of the misogyny they faced in their own subcultures. The women’s liberation movement grew more vocal and militant in the 1970s. Trina Robbins published the first all-women underground comic “It Ain’t Me Babe” in 1970, in response to the sexually liberated but sexist underground comix by R. Crumb and his ilk. Feminist leader Gloria Steinem established “Ms. Magazine” in 1972, while Robbins and her friends explored feminism and lesbianism in “Wimmen’s Comix” starting that same year.
Title IX, a part of the Education Amendments of 1972, asserted that women could not be excluded from education programs, including school sports. Abortion rights were established by the Supreme Court, thanks to Roe v. Wade in 1973. Other 1970s laws protected women from discrimination and also provided them more economic and employment opportunities, allowing women to join the workforce in huge numbers. Women established feminist businesses like bookstores, restaurants, and record labels. The feminist guide to women’s anatomy and sexuality, Our Bodies, Ourselves, was first published in 1979.
From the ’70s to the Present
Even though the turbulence of the 1970s came to an end, American protest never really went away: More recent protests include the Million Man March in 1995, the marches against the Iraq War in 2003, the conservative Tea Party protests in the late 2000s, the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011, and the current Black Lives Matter movement, which started in 2013 as a response to the acquittal of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin‘s killer.
The Resistance movement emerged as a counter to the 2016 election of U.S. President Donald Trump, who promised to roll back policy advances made by the civil rights, women’s and LGBT rights, and environmental movements. Under the broad Resistance umbrella, millions of protestors have poured into the streets of America’s cities for the Women’s March, the March for Science, the Tax March, and others. While neo-Nazis and white nationalists have felt empowered by Trump to march openly in the streets, they’ve been met by anti-racist and anti-fascist protestors in equal or greater numbers. Inspired by the #MeToo hashtag, women have been speaking publicly about sexual assault, prompting a reckoning for several high-profile men, if not the president. After teenagers in Parkland, Florida, witnessed their classmates gunned down by an angry teen with an AR-15, they organized the March for Our Lives on Washington, D.C. Frustrated with low pay and lack of resources from their state governments, public teachers have staged statewide walkouts around the country.
In the tumultuous history of protest in the United States, many have lost their lives or made great personal sacrifices for change. But more than 200 years of demonstrations have not destroyed America—if anything, they’ve succeeded in making the country better and stronger.